Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cape Cod Bound

In 1999 I'd been a mixed practice veterinarian living in the foothills of Colorado for 7 years when I said to a friend, "By the end of the year I'll be working with wildlife full time."

As it happened, by August of that year I was packed into the biggest UHaul I could rent, towing my car, driving cross country, my beautiful malamute mix, Taqa, beside me. I was Cape Cod bound. I was going to be a veterinarian at a wildlife center full time. I was sure it was what I was meant to do and that I'd spend the rest of my career with wildlife as my only patients.

If you've read even a little bit of my profile, you know that's not how my life turned out. But back then, as I drove through the vast pastures and fields of Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois, on the seemingly endless journey from the Rockies to the Atlantic, all I thought about was surgery on great horned owls, raising robins and raccoons, and removing fish hooks from turtles. I'd spent many weeks at the Cape Wildlife Center over that summer and moving to Massachusetts to be their full-time wildlife veterinarian was a dream come true.

The journey was anything but smooth. My car's battery was drained one night in a Nebraska truck stop when a snow shoe wedged against the brake pedal left the brake lights shining all night. I'd moved the driver's seat so I could sleep in the back of the car and had missed the offending shoe (that I'd never again need, it turned out). I didn't discover the dead battery until I was in Pennsylvania and needed my car to drive to a motel (my first on the whole journey) because the transmission had given out on my UHaul-monster. A friendly gentleman jumped my car and never said an unkind word. He never even snickered. That motel bed, once I finally made it there, was the most comfortable we'd ever slept in (me and my dog).

The next day, after all of my belongings had been transferred to another truck, I was wending my way through the hills of Pennsylvania. The overloaded truck had to work so hard to get up the hills that I was being passed by mobile homes pulled by trucks. Lots of them, some of them huge. I think every mobile home in Pennsylvania was on the highway that Sunday.

Late that night, I pulled down the narrow, rutted road in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, drunk with relief and shivering with anticipation. My sisters, Karen and Jenny, met me at the Center and helped me unload my vast UHaul into the conference room and I collapsed into one of the beds at the Center. The next day I set to work as a wildlife veterinarian. But I also had, unexpectedly, landed the job of being the Center's new director. That, it turned out, would be the hardest part of my job by far.

The Center had struggled with the season -- more wildlife babies than expected and insufficient volunteers to help with the work. The staff and externs (students there for 3 or 4 weeks at a time) were overstretched with the daily chore of feeding dozens of baby raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, and song birds. Our day would start at 7 in the morning and often not be over until 10 at night. Every baby animal needed feeding multiple times per day. It had to be done in a quiet and nonstressful manner by people that were anything but stress-free. On top of the chores of rehabilitating healthy babies, injured wildlife arrived each day requiring medical and surgical care. It was a wild time of trial by fire and I felt alternately lost and exhilarated.

Student externs from all over the world would arrive and, on their days off, want to visit the sites on Cape Cod. I never could help them out about where to go. I could get to my cottage, my favorite sandwich shop, the grocery store, and the release sites we used. I was absolutely no help to the students from exotic places like Holland, Germany, and New York who wanted to experience Cape Cod. I lived there for 5 years and, I'm ashamed to say, I really didn't get to know her very well. Her wildlife yes, her culture and heritage and beautiful scenic spots, not so much. A restful day for me was one when I had time to take a walk on the marsh beside the Center or go kayaking through the marshes in the next town.

Examination of an anesthetized green heron with an injured wing
But that's the way that I wanted it -- working hard, helping wildlife, teaching students, and caring for my patients.That's a little taste of how I got there. As time goes on, I'll share a few stories. There are some doozies!

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Caring Claras of Our World

Just 6 weeks ago, Clara was walking in her neighborhood when she found a German shepherd with a note attached to her collar: "My name is Bear, please take me home." In this area, close to Fort Bragg, many pets are abandoned when troops are deployed. They're often purebred, beautiful dogs, like Bear.

Clara took Bear to her veterinarian and had her vaccinated, a heartworm test done, and had her treated for internal parasites. Bear, renamed Sofie, was positive for heartworms and so, a couple of weeks after joining Clara's family, she was treated with two painful injections into her back muscles to kill the heartworms. After the treatment, Sofie didn't seem quite right. She had good days and bad days, and just didn't seem as spry as she had for the two weeks prior to her heartworm treatment.

When I met Sofie, two weeks after the completion of her heartworm treatment, I was taken with how gentle and attentive this young German shepherd was. She clearly loved her new family, and was devoted to Clara. All Clara could tell me was that something wasn't quite right ever since her heartworm treatment. Some days she was restless or didn't want to eat. Other days, she would vomit and had no energy.

When I did my physical exam, I could feel a very large lump near where Sofie's kidney should be. An ultrasound exam revealed that the lump was indeed Sofie's kidney, which had a large area of swelling covering most of one side of the organ. It could be a hematoma (like a large blood blister), an abscess, or cancer. An ultrasound exam can't distinguish those diseases, so we needed to get a sample of the tissue. After anesthetizing Sofie so she wouldn't feel anything, I passed a long, thin needle, with the guidance of the ultrasound probe, into the tissue surrounding Sofie's kidney. Based on the sample, an abscess was unlikely and cancer didn't seem probable either. A hematoma as a result of some type of trauma was most likely. The problem was, it was large enough that it was a ticking time-bomb, waiting to rupture. She was going to need surgery to remove the kidney and the associated hematoma.

The morning after we collected our sample, Sofie's condition worsened. She was painful, weak, and dehydrated. Within a couple of hours, she went into shock. I was sure she was bleeding internally and I suspected that the mass around her kidney had ruptured. We stabilized her with fluids and pain medications, started a blood transfusion, and took her to emergency surgery. The surgery took a grueling three hours of painstakingly careful work. Sofie's body had surrounded part of the hematoma with thick, fibrous tissue that had to be slowly peeled away and severed to release the kidney and the hematoma. The mass had bled into the cavity where the kidney lies and a significant amount of fluid and blood was lost into that space which was the cause of Sofie's life-threatening shock. My colleague did the surgery while I assisted and simultaneously ran the team supporting Sofie with fluids, medications, and a blood transfusion. Her situation was critical throughout much of the surgery, but the team of veterinary technicians worked continuously to ensure her stability while Dr. Williams teased her offending kidney free of all of its adhesions.

Finally the surgery was completed and Sofie was carried to recovery, where I hovered, on and off, for the rest of the day, until she could raise her head to look at me through her morphine-glazed eyes. She took a deep breath and seemed awake and comfortable for the first time all day. When Clara came to see her, she raised her head and managed a little tail wag. Next came the waiting -- we'd have to see if her other kidney was up to the task of taking over the function of two kidneys. She had intensive care and monitoring for 36 hours after surgery. As we weaned her off of her medications, she was able to stand and walk and urinate normally. Seeing that urine on our hospital floor, I did a little jig of joy.

Three days after surgery, she went home with Clara. We both cried. Sofie wagged her tail and leaned against the veterinary technicians, giving them liberal canine kisses.

Sofie almost died. And, but for the caring of a kind woman who adopted her and took responsibility for all of her medical conditions, she would have. I'm so very grateful for the Claras of our world.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Macaw Whispers

For 14 years Qantaqa, my beautiful malamute mix, was my constant companion; from Colorado to Cape Cod to North Carolina. She was self-possessed and opinionated and more cat than dog. She liked to lie in the sun or curl up under  the bed. She was responsive to requests, not so much to commands. She spent the days in her den (my Subaru Forester) and resented leaving it to go for a walk with *sniff* humans. She owned me far more than I ever owned her.
For some reason, when our severe macaw, Willow, joined our household 6 years ago, "Qantaqa" was the first word she learned and she said it for many, many months before her next word entered her vocabulary (a strident and very appropriately used, "Bye!!"). 

Qantaqa was still with us when Willow joined our house. She'd aged, but she remained stately, as beautiful as ever, and still prone to doing her own thing. She was an old lady and I really didn't have much cause to call her to me -- she came downstairs to go outside when it suited her, she came into the kitchen at meal times, and otherwise she denned up in our bedroom. So in actuality, I didn't use her name that often, and when I did I was much more likely to call her Taqa, Queen Ta or just plain Ta. I think Willow just enjoyed the sounds of her full name. For a brief while, all dogs became "Qantaqa!" (pronounced kahn-TAH-kah). It is odd, though, because our birds generally needed to hear a word numerous times over many months before incorporating it into their vocabulary, much less into daily usage. (With the Murphy's-Law caveat that if it was a curse word, it would be learned in one repetition.)

Qantaqa died 2 years ago. But Willow still says her name when looking at 3-year-old borzoi, Quill. It's all she's ever called him (though she appropriate calls our other borzoi Finn). And, in a way, she's been prophetic because Taqa's mantel has passed to Quill. He's the only being in the household to whom boss cat, Master Odin shows deference. He's a bit moody, opinionated, and cat-like in his own right, just like Ta was. He is, thankfully, marginally more amenable to training. Nevertheless, we often laugh that he's channeling Qantaqa. 

Last night I was feeding the dogs near Willow's cage. 

"Qantaqa!" screeched Willow, as I was calling Quill to his bowl. 

"Willow, dearest, his name is Quill." I said to her.

"Qantaqa!", she shouted again. 

"This is Quill," I said.

Then I heard her whisper, ever so softly, "Quill. Quill." under her breath. 

I looked over my shoulder and smiled, "That's right, Willow, it's Quill."

She looked at me, raised the feathers on her head, widened her eyes, and paused. Then she screeched, "Qantaqa!"

What could I say? She could be right; maybe he's Quill and Qantaqa.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Recall Synchronicity

Imagine your dog going out the front door, seeing a deer, and tearing off into the woods. Or that you're traveling far from home and your dog slips her collar and runs across a busy highway and into the roadside marshes. Imagine that someone left the gate open and your dogs are racing each other toward the busiest road in town. Or that you're in the competition ring doing a recall and your dog can't hear your voice for the lovely little hound he's watching beside the ring.

Each of these things has happened to me or my immediate family. And it's frustrating (if your dog's not in physical danger) or terrifying (if he is).

So there was no dearth of reasons why I signed up for my first ever non-veterinary e-course, The 5 Minute Formula to A Brilliant Recall with author, agility competitor, and blogger, Susan Garrett. As it happens, just the other day I was doing my homework making lists of things my dogs find distracting. On a scale of 0 (couldn't care less) to 10 (can't even think straight) I was rating each distractor. One of the highest on the list was running loose with another dog.

That night I got home and both dogs were lame. Quill was lame on three feet, poor guy. "What happened to the boys?" I asked my husband. "Oh, there's a tale to tell there." he responded calmly. (That's my husband, calm.) Here's the tale:

Tim came home mid-day to let the dogs out and have lunch. We have a large, fenced dog yard and, on a typical day, they happily zoom around for a moment and then settle down enough to sniff, empty their bladders, and enjoy the sunshine. Being borzois, and faster even than greyhounds, they love the zooming part. Well, once Tim had let them out, he noticed that the dog yard gate had been left open (something we never, ever do). We'd been having some construction done on the other side of the house and one of the workers must have entered the dog yard and not closed the gate again. Tim, panic in his heart, "My wife's gonna kill me." running through his head, went to the front of the house. 

One of the workers said, "I've never seen dogs move so fast!" and he pointed toward one of the busiest roads in town that is just over the rise, less than 1/4 mile from our house. Tim whistled in a way only he (and our African grey) can do and called the boys' names. He did this four times in quick succession. Back around the bend they came, hell bent for leather, joy and the wind in their ears. They raced each other up to him on the front steps. He had tears of relief in his eyes and his heart still in his throat. They had nothing but excitement and looks on their faces of "Did you see us Dad?! We were fast!"

Well, they had a good time but not without consequences. Five feet out of eight had torn and abraded pads severe enough to cause Quill to walk like he's crossing hot coals (picture a severely foundered horse). (Borzoi's note to self - Avoid lure-coursing on hot pavement.) But bandaging feet for a week is a small price to pay compared to what could have happened.

Thank goodness that Tim has conditioned the dogs to that whistle for the last two years -- likely it's all that could have reached them over the distance they'd run. And thank goodness for starting this recalling course and that it's already making a difference -- their recalls are far better than I realized.

I'm looking forward to the rest of the course. A recall can never be too fast. And never again will I complain about Tango, the African grey, hurting my ears with a perfect imitation of Tim's whistle.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Clipping a Lion's Claws

One day I was trimming Aragorn's claws. 

Let me tell you about Aragorn. He's a 1-year-old Savannah; in other words, one of his grands was a serval. This is hard for me to admit because, as a rule, I think hybrids (wolf- or cat-) are really difficult animals to live with and most people aren't prepared for how complex it can be. Let me assure you, my hybrid cats (I have 3) are a huge pain-in-the-neck most of the time. But that's my personality, I like a challenge. However, I would never suggest that someone get one of these cats. If they do, I'll be happy to provide the veterinary care for their new master. But I sure don't go out of my way to recommend cat hybrids to anyone.

So. Aragorn. He's stunning, peaceful, and huge. The peaceful part is so unusual for Savannahs that I've secretly wondered if he's a bit, well, slow. But the first time I trimmed his claws I saw the African veldt in his little eyes. He became an absolute lion. 

He was about 12 weeks old the first time. It was a struggle, but we got it done. Alas, I put off the next trimming until he was about 6 months old. (This was mistake number 1.) I set up everything in our bathroom -- a nice enclosed space. I asked Tim if he'd clip the nails while I held the 9 pound kitten. (Mistake number 2: don't alienate your husband by asking him to trim the claws on the lunging paws of a miniature lion.) By the completion of nail #0, I released Tim from his nail clipping duties. By this point, the poor kitten had growled and yowled several times, attracting the attention of Finn, the borzoi, who stood in the doorway to watch. (Mistake number 3: leaving the bathroom door open in the first place. Mistake number 4: not evicting the 95 lb dog and closing the door.) Nail clipping resumed, yowls increased in volume.

This brought big brother Odin to investigate. (Mistake number 5: never name your hybrid cat after the King of the Gods.) 

Odin. He really is Aragorn's half-brother. He's as wild and opinionated as Aragorn is laid-back. But by 3 years of age, Odin and I'd come to understand each other and he'd stopped lunging at me from hidden corners (just to see me jump), stealing food off of Tim's plate, swiping my socks and hiding them, and many of his other, um, endearing behaviors. But he still opens all of the kitchen cabinets for the other cats if his breakfast is late.

So Odin came running, reared up to full height, wound up for the swing, and swatted Finn (who was still standing in the bathroom doorway) soundly on the rump. Finn yelped, ran forward and wedged himself in a perfect tuck sit between the toilet (where I sat with Aragorn on my lap) and the wall. Odin came in as well and sat on the bathroom rug growling low in his throat which kept Finn in his sit-stay. (Mistake number 6: could I not have realized at this point that quitting was the better part of valor? No. I only had 1 paw left. Stubborn Blackmer.)

At this point, Aragorn was no worse than to start, Finn not withstanding. He was tolerating my nail clipping, but still swearing a blue streak. Yet, when I finished and let him go, he jumped peacefully on the bathroom counter and sat down to have a bath. He purred when I patted him. Fickle, cats. 

Odin swatted Finn once more, just because, and left. I released Finn from his sit-stay. Somehow I emerged unscathed.

I was grateful that my husband, the photographer in the family, had graciously left the camera downstairs.

Postscript: claw clipping is on my list of activities to clicker-train. Perhaps while I'm clicker training the cats to appreciate it, I could clicker train Tim to do it?

But then I'd have to take over cleaning the gutters. 

On second thought, I'll stick with claw-clipping.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I Never Thought I'd Own A Clicker

I have to admit it. I bought a clicker.

I told a friend, not 2 months ago, "I'll never do clicker training. I can't stand the sound. I don't want to be tied to a clicker. And I sure don't want Tango (my African grey) constantly clicking!"

"Never say never."

Mother-of-mine, you were right.

It all started with Susan Garrett. She's an agility competitor, an author, a blogger. And her enthusiasm is infectious. I read her book, Shaping Success, The Education of An Unlikely Champion, in one weekend. It was a wonderful story about her training adventures with Buzz, the red border collie. Oh, did I fall in love with that dog. And clicker training started to niggle at the edges of my mind throughout that weekend of running with Buzz.

So, as is my way, I began my research. I read Karen Pryor, Patricia McConnell, Pat Miller, more Susan Garrett, and others. And I bought my first clicker and started clicker training some easy tricks with our two young adult borzois, Quill and Finn.

Training with a clicker is like having a lexicon to communicate with your dog. Scratch that. For you to communicate with each other. It's positive reinforcement training -- you're reinforcing the dog for giving you the behavior you want (sitting, looking at you, speaking) instead of punishing him for performing behaviors you don't want (jumping on you, chasing the cat, rushing out the door).

The click is meant to indicate to the dog that what he's doing at that precise moment is correct and a treat is coming. It's a very exact tool and your timing has to be spot-on. If you're paying attention, you'll learn as much from your dog as he learns from you. Quill, especially, is a master at showing me the error of my clicks.

To whit: in one easy session I taught Quill (inadvertently) to lick my hand whenever I turned it palm to him. My goal was to have him touch my palm with his nose. His "brother" is doing this beautifully and this type of targeting can be very helpful in training other behaviors so I wanted to teach it to Quill. But I was having trouble.

The behavior you get is what you have reinforced with the click. Clearly, at one point, I had clicked when Quill licked instead of when he touched, and that's what he continued to offer (and I, in my beginner fervor and poor timing, continued to click the lick, not the touch). Now I'm having an amusing time trying to get him back to a nose touch instead of a tongue touch. But what's really wonderful is that, instead of being frustrated by this, I'm fascinated by it. And it's not a hard fix. I just have to improve my timing.

Our dogs have always enjoyed training. But never have they tried to bust down the door of the training area to get in there to work. And my enthusiasm matches theirs.

Guess I'm just gonna have to put up with Tango clicking. I wonder when it'll start?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Borzoi Paws on My Heart

Many, many years ago I began my love affair with obedience trials and dog training. It was when I was in veterinary school and my canine partner was a sassy, difficult, intelligent and challenging German shepherd named Natasha. We did quite well, really, as long as we were indoors (only happened at one trial), there were no kids (rarely happened), I was relaxed (only happened after we left the ring), and I didn't lose my cool (I was 25, what can I say, that one was a rare bird too). Which is to say, we never earned an obedience title. We tried, but my life and career and her far too early death prevented us from attaining that goal.

More than 20 years have passed and I now have a borzoi. Not a traditional obedience breed by any stretch. Nevertheless, I love obedience training with Finn. When things are going well, it's like a dance. And it feels incredible.

But training a hound, especially a sight hound, is challenging. In his mind, everything that moves is important. So, in the comfort of our training class, all is well -- he focuses on me, I lead the dance, and we look like a well-trained team. But, when we go somewhere new, it's a whole different game. A leaf, a bird, a candy wrapper -- they're all bunnies to him. Oh, it's tough to convince my prey-driven sighty that I'm more interesting and more rewarding than the candy wrapper bunny dashing across the field!

Nevertheless, we recently made it through our first obedience trial. We even earned the first of three "legs" on our Companion Dog obedience title. I was very, very proud.

But, if I'm being absolutely honest, if I were a dog, I'd be a Border collie. Which means I want to work, work, work, and I want to "get it right". (Read, B's just aren't sufficient, I want A's.) So, while I'm proud of our accomplishment, I want to achieve more. I gotta banish those imaginary bunnies from Finn's mind!

If you've ever worked with a sight hound, you know how tough that is.

It means I've got to do LOTS of "proofing" -- taking our skills and working them in distracting environments like the grocery store parking lot, the pet store, the dog park, near the school where kids are playing, or in a multitude of other new places. So we've been working on that. And our best friend in the endeavor is liver treats -- that are almost as good as invisible bunnies.

We're working, he becomes distracted by that "bunny", I say "ready!", his head whips around, his eyes lock on mine, a liver treat is delivered, and, for a moment, we're one in the dance with his feet following my lead and our hearts enmeshed. It's a glorious white light moment, just him and me and our dance, we're moving as one, absolutely in sync with each other. The wonder of that moment draws me back to our practice, day after day.

The practice is hard, hard work. For both of us. But that dance is like nothing else in the world.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Dog (and Cat) Breath: You Really CAN Brush Your Pet's Teeth

"Brush my dog's teeth! Are you kidding?!"

I was examining Taffy, a 12-year-old poodle. She had terrible plaque and tartar on her teeth and her gums were flaming red. She was in my office for her routine annual wellness visit and the only concern her owner had was that Taffy's breath was, well, awful.

"Yes, Mrs. Milton, brushing her teeth will really help her in the future. But right now we need to get her in for a dental cleaning right away."

Most people know that a routine annual teeth cleaning (called a prophylaxis or prophy) is necessary for their own health but many don't realize the same is true of FiFi, Spot, and Garfield. Up to 85% of pets have dental disease by the time they're three years of age. And dental disease can contribute to other severe health problems including infection (in the mouth or body), pain, and bone loss from the jaw, even resulting in fractures.

February is Pet Dental Health Month, so you may have heard from your veterinarian that your own pet's due for his or her dental prophy. Heed your veterinarian's advice because, as I told Mrs. Milton, routine dental care is critical to our animals' health. Also, regular dental prophies can help our pets keep their teeth (and help us enjoy their kisses) for their entire lives. You'd be amazed how many animals lose teeth by the time they're seniors because they didn't have the dental care they needed when they were younger. Some dogs (my own included) need to start having regular professional dental prophies by the time they're one year of age!

A dental prophy for your dog or cat involves the same scaling and polishing that we experience at our own dentists. The only difference is that our pets need to be anesthetized to allow a proper cleaning. It's a simple procedure if done regularly.

Back to brushing: if you brush your dog's (or, yes, cat's) teeth at least every other day, it will really help cut down on the degree of dental disease she's prone to developing. It may also decrease the frequency with which she needs her dental cleanings. I have one client whose lovely Yorkshire terrier needed dental care every 4 months. With routine brushing, she was able to increase the time between dental cleanings to once yearly.

But I have to agree with Mrs. Milton, brushing is not always so easy. There are some good resources to help you teach your companion to at least tolerate (if not exactly enjoy) the experience. Check out for a video on how to teach this to your dog or cat.

This article from,, is also quite helpful.

A word of advice -- get a delicious chicken- or beef-flavored pet toothpaste for your pet. Most of them don't care for the strong minty taste of human toothpastes any more than you or I would enjoy their chicken-flavored one!

For more information (and photos with a certain "wow" factor) visit For photos with an even higher "ick!" factor, check out,

If tooth brushing is just out of the question for your companion, consider specialized dental chews or treats that help clean the teeth through mechanical or enzymatic action or prevent tartar build up. This link provides a list of the Veterinary Oral Health Council's approved products: